The poem known as “Tears, Idle Tears,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was originally part of a longer work. Yet the poem today is most often read as a separate, isolated lyric – a nostalgic meditation on the past. The speaker suddenly feels the rush of tears, but he is unable to characterize either their cause or their meaning very precisely: “Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean” (1). In a sense, the rest of the poem is an attempt by the speaker to make some sense of the tears that have so suddenly arisen in him.
He thinks they have arisen “from the depth of some divine despair” (2) – a phrase that already suggests some of the ambiguity of the poem as a whole. The despair or hopelessness the speaker feels is somehow “divine.” In other words, it is painful in some ways but seems richly significant in others. Use of the word “some” adds to the mystery and ambiguity of the poem: the speaker is trying to understand the meaning of his sudden impulse to weep, but as yet he cannot quite make sense of his strong feelings. Evidently, however, they are connected with the realization of mutability – of the passage of time, the loss of time past, and the coming of old age and mortality. The tears result, in part, from
. . . looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more. (4-5)
Even here, the phrasing is ambiguous and ambivalent: the fields seem happy, but the speaker seems somewhat mournful. Perhaps his tears arise, in part, from the realization that autumn comes and goes and comes and goes in the case of nature (such as fields), but that the autumn of each individual human being (as in old age and death) occurs just once and then is gone forever.
In the second stanza, the speaker refers to another natural cycle. If the first stanza had alluded to the cycle of the passing year, the second refers to the cycle of the passing day – specifically, the rising and setting of the sun. The rising sun is associated with the arrival of friends, who are somehow brought “up from the underworld” (7). The phrasing here, as in so much of the poem, is ambiguous and mysterious. Is the speaker referring to the memory of friends who are now dead? The meaning of this phrase isn’t entirely clear – another example of the poem’s studied ambiguity.
In any case, the rest of this stanza alludes to another example of the passage of time – specifically, the ending of a day, symbolized by sunset, which “sinks with all we love below the verge” (9). This stanza ends on another ambiguous, ambivalent note: somehow, the “days that are no more” are both “Sad” and “fresh” – sad because they are gone, fresh, however, in the memory of the speaker (but only there).
[ANALYSIS CONTINUED BELOW]